Tom Webster, writing and speaking

The Problem With Keeping Score

Added on by Tom Webster.

Wembley-park-scoreboardOne of the things I regret most about the current state of the social web is our fascination with keeping score. More troubling is how we keep score - with a ruthlessly binary system that allows for no shades of gray, no measured opinions, no points for the debate. Instead, the social web - and its participants - are gradually being scored in all sorts of ways, by all sorts of entities, in a strictly binary fashion. There is something patently offensive about this to my sensibilities as both a researcher and a classic INTP, but more troubling to me are the implications of what "social" naturally becomes under such a system. In the early days of blogging, communities were built up around subjects - topics of interest - and the lively debate that often ensued in comments. While this is still true to a large extent, for many, commenting has been replaced by the trappings of a new, reductive and, dare I say, lazier means of expression. Think about today's means of expression: Thumbs-up. Retweets. "Likes." And the most sinister of all: the +1.

Now, I'm not a +1 guy. I'm a range-of-integers kind of guy. When I read something that I thoroughly enjoy, or shifts my perspective, I'm not stingy with my +1. Other things…well, I'd love to have a "+.24" or a "+.08." By day I'm partially in the election research business. The day I field a survey that asks "What is your opinion of how the President is handling the current economic crisis" and the only acceptable answers are A) "Like" and B) "N/A" will surely be my last day in the business.

Which brings up another point, of course - the current system isn't even truly "binary," in the sense that our only two choices are some form of simple endorsement, or ambivalence. But not "liking" something is not the same thing as not liking something. Imagine what the social web would look like if we also had "un"-retweets, "Don't Likes" and "-1" buttons.

The reductio ad absurdum of this incessant need to score also manifests itself in more sinister ways - freed of the obligation to engage with the idea, we can simply and quickly endorse content based solely on the author in what my friend Mark Schaefer refers to as the "Economy of Favors." In effect, we are scoring people, and a legion of startups have emerged to help us solve a problem we didn't even know we had.

And therein lies the most troubling aspect of this. Ostensibly, these new scoring and voting tools are meant to give us ways to express ourselves - to show our appreciation, or tacit endorsement, of content online. Yet this is not a problem that people actually have. Since the early BBS days, we've had all the tools we've needed to express ourselves online and engage with ideas. No, these new scoring tools aren't meant to solve our problems - they're meant to solve the problems of Facebook, Google, and hundreds of startups trying to fix search, or determine influence.

In essence, we've been given the +1 and the "like" button because Google and Facebook have essentially punted the problem back to us. But if you give this article a "like" on Facebook, what does that really tell me? You like me? It made you think? You violently disagree but want to acknowledge the idea? You like clicking buttons? Of course, it is my hope that you'll comment here, and I'll engage with you back. Anyone who reads my blog knows that I am a very gray thinker, and I don't cling to old positions when presented with new evidence.

But a +1, once given, is given forever. And every +1 is the same.